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Beat Poet

Hip hop legend Afrika Bambaataa makes his first foray as a CU visiting scholar


At the Ithaca nightclub known as the Haunt, it’s no ordinary Tuesday evening. The dance floor is filled—but most people aren’t dancing. Instead, they have their eyes glued to a large video monitor as vintage clips from TV shows and documentaries scroll across the screen. Images of James Brown, George Clinton, and other funk legends are occasionally interspersed with a younger version of the man standing center stage behind a massive DJ system: Afrika Bambaataa, widely considered the godfather of hip hop.

Afrika Bambaataa

Pete Best

Throughout the night, Bambaataa showcases the skills that made him one of the formative forces in hip hop during the Seventies and Eighties. Alternating be­tween vinyl albums on a turntable and digital files on his laptop, he creates a variety of funky grooves while overlaying sonic snippets from such artists as Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, James Brown, AC/DC, Cee-Lo, and C+C Music Factory.

Bambaataa’s Haunt show was part of his first trip to Ithaca since receiving a three-year appointment as a Cornell visiting scholar. He also lectured to students in the University’s new hip hop course, met with young men incarcerated at the Finger Lakes Residential Center, and spoke at Ithaca College. Earlier that day, Bambaataa took part in a panel discussion in the Biotech building entitled “The Roots of Hip Hop.” Organized by the curators of the Cornell Hip Hop Collection—now part of Kroch Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections and considered the largest such archive in the country—the panel was hosted by internationally known DJ Rich Medina ’92.

Africana studies professor James Turner introduced the panel, noting that Cornell’s acquisition of the collection and Bambaataa’s appointment come at an important moment as hip hop moves into its fourth decade. “Hip hop’s currency has produced cultural shifts in performance art, theatrical drama, choreography, fashion, vernacular language, and social conscience,” Turner said. Medina, who serves on the collection’s advisory board, led off the discussion, calling hip hop culture “as important a piece of Americana as baseball, as important as any other race-related or motivated culture movement that any of us have experienced.”

The panelists—who also included Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón of the Rock Steady Crew and photographer Joe Conzo—talked about the early days of hip hop, describing how as teenagers they were looking for ways to escape their grim surroundings in the South Bronx. To emphasize that rap had long been part of popular music, Bambaataa cued up a string of YouTube clips that ranged across fifty years and a variety of styles: The Music Man, James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” even Ray Stevens’s country hit “Guitarzan.” All had spoken-word lyrics that seemed to foreshadow the future sound of rap and hip hop. “Most people didn’t recognize it,” Bambaataa said, “but when it came to us, we recognized it and we called it hip hop.”

Both as a performer and a DJ, Bambaataa is known for working across genres. He noted his collaborations with funk masters James Brown and Bootsy Collins, punk legend Johnny Lydon, and rockers Sting and UB40; he also cited eclectic influences such as techno artists Gary Numan and Yellow Magic Orchestra, the soundtrack to the horror film Halloween, and Dick Hyman’s Moog albums as fodder for his sonic explorations. “I was for anything that had the funk of everything,” he said. “I tried to be progressive minded with the music and take the audience on a journey. It’s the same thing I do when I travel all over the world—take everyone on a musical journey.”